Christopher Stuart - the son of a Derbyshire coal miner who became the British Ambassador in Mongolia
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 January 2016 | UPDATED: 10:52 19 January 2016
Derbyshire Life meets Christopher Charles Stuart – until recently Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Mongolia – and uncovers an inspirational story of how the son of a Derbyshire coal miner was appointed to senior British diplomatic postings throughout the world
‘It all seems rather strange now, but at the time I couldn’t help thinking about my childhood – growing up in Derbyshire in the late 1960s – as I stood nervously waiting to meet Her Majesty The Queen outside her private study in Buckingham Palace,’ smiles Christopher Stuart, with a whimsical glint in his eye. ‘It was the springtime of 2012, and I was about to be presented to the Monarch as His Excellency Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Great Britain and Northern Ireland to Mongolia – a memory that will live with me forever.’
The private audience between The Queen and her newly appointed ambassador may have only lasted for 15 minutes, but as Christopher left the room he became the British Government’s foremost diplomatic representative in Mongolia. ‘I couldn’t resist glancing back at Buckingham Palace as we drove away, taking a moment to reflect on the incredible personal journey I had taken,’ he reflects. This had truly been a life-changing voyage that had taken him from a Ripley childhood as the son of a coal miner to a career-high crescendo of taking charge of one of the most challenging Foreign and Commonwealth Office missions in the world.
‘My father was a miner, working at Brookhill Colliery in Pinxton,’ recalls Christopher. ‘By the time I was six years old my family had moved to Ripley and apart from a three-year gap when I went to university, I lived in the town for over 25 years.’
As a young boy he attended Ripley Junior School, but it was during his time as a scholar at Mortimer Wilson School in Alfreton that he was to discover his passion for education and sport. Christopher demonstrated a natural talent for sailing and won a number of national schoolboy championships. ‘My school was very progressive and gave young people many wonderful opportunities. I was taught to sail at Ogston Reservoir – near Brackenfield, Ashover and Clay Cross – and I am very grateful for that.’
From an early age Christopher understood the important part education plays in improving character and in personal development. He was the first person in his family to go to university. ‘I read Chemistry at the University of Lancaster. I enjoyed my time there; it was a wonderful place, set within a friendly community,’ he remembers. During a trip back to Derbyshire as part of a study break he met his future wife, Isabelle. ‘I was visiting my family during a holiday and I went to a fancy dress party at Hazelwood Village Hall, near Duffield. Isabelle and I got chatting and instantly hit it off; we were married in 1986 at Ripley Church,’ he smiles proudly.
After university he was quick to put his scientific qualifications to good use, taking a role as a development chemist with a small flooring company in Riddings, producing chemical compounds and materials. Christopher appreciated this opportunity and developed a keen interest in health and safety – which was ultimately to take him on a new career path.
‘Whilst in Riddings I noticed an advert to work as a factory inspector – I applied for the job and this was to be the start of my public service career,’ he recalls. ‘My role as a Her Majesty’s Inspector of Health and Safety was varied and interesting. I was based in Nottingham, covering Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire, and I was responsible for overseeing regulation linked to the key utility providers. Every day was different – one day I could be prosecuting a company in the magistrates’ court for an enforcement notice breach and another I could be developing public policy around health and safety in the utilities.’
After 11 years in the role, Christopher was ready for his next professional challenge. ‘I remember at this time we were restoring and refurbishing a half-timbered cottage in the delightful village of Breadsall. Isabelle and I were spending every weekend over an 18-month period cleaning and repairing hundreds of bricks, while our builder replaced an entire roof and countless timbers. This was a special home for us all – as Isabelle had given birth to our son, William, while we lived there,’ he remembers fondly.
‘I was ready for a new challenge and by coincidence a civil service vacancy sheet passed across my desk. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office were looking for a scientist with a good knowledge of how government worked to join an overseas mission promoting science and technology,’ he recalls. ‘At this time the Foreign Office did not employ their own scientists so I jumped at the chance to take a secondment opportunity with them in a role based in Tokyo.’
And so began Christopher’s first step into the world of international diplomacy, and along with it the glamorous job title of First Secretary Science and Technology to Japan. ‘I was one of 60 British staff based in the Embassy in Tokyo. Science and technology is very important in Japan – they invest vast sums of money in this area. I was there to bolster British science and technology links between Japanese and British industry. I spent a great deal of time introducing British industrialists to Japanese businesses, as well as liaising with Japanese ministries and educational institutions,’ Christopher explains.
Isabelle and William joined Christopher in Japan, living in a small rented house in the heart of Tokyo. ‘William was three years old and immediately started his educational life at the British School in Tokyo,’ he remembers. ‘Working in the British Embassy in Japan was a fantastic introduction to the role of a diplomat – I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week; often taking part in at least three or four receptions and dinners every week as part of a strategy to promote British interests in the country.’
Christopher’s secondment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was made permanent as he came to the end of his five-year-long Tokyo posting. He took part in a rigorous interview process and was invited to join the Foreign Office on a permanent full-time basis as Head of the Near East and North Africa Unit based in Whitehall. ‘I was responsible for working with British embassies, high commissions and missions in 11 nations – from Syria to Israel and from Algeria to the Lebanon. During this time I visited lots of fascinating places to promote British interests,’ he recalls. The Stuarts lived in a flat in Wimbledon during the week and visited their Derbyshire home at weekends.
Having been bitten by the Japanese cultural bug, few of the Stuart’s friends were surprised when Christopher decided to take his family back to Japan again. Less than 18 months after leaving Tokyo, he was promoted to the post of Head of Investment and Deputy Consul General in West Japan.
The role was located in Osaka, an area that accounted for almost 40 per cent of the total Japanese economy, supporting a population of nearly 60 million people. ‘Osaka is often referred to as the Manchester of Japan, after vast amounts of technology and industrial production methods were imported directly from the mills of North-west England. This technology can still be seen in many factories today,’ he explains.
On his return to Japan, Christopher went back into the classroom to learn and study Japanese. ‘The process of learning a new language is often challenging but Japanese is well known for being particularly difficult. However, I can say with some experience that if you wish to learn Japanese and you come from Derbyshire, you will have a head start. The Derbyshire accent translates very well, much better than more southern tones!’ laughs Christopher.
It is well known in diplomatic circles that much of the work of the Foreign Office is cloaked in secrecy, but at this point in the interview Christopher is keen to recall a particularly memorable occasion during his time in Japan. While learning Japanese, one of his teacher’s friends asked if she could bring her parents for tea after a lesson. This particular friend was a Japanese princess and to Christopher’s delight she brought the Emperor of Japan – the head of the Imperial Family and ceremonial head of state – and the Empress to join him and Isabelle for tea and cake. ‘The British Royal family has an extremely important relationship with the Imperial Family and to meet the Emperor and Empress was an amazing experience. It is a memory that will endure for a long time,’ says Christopher.
In April 2007 Christopher was promoted to the role of Consul General in Osaka, bringing him into contact with royalty again. ‘His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales visited Japan with a remit to further British relations, which reach back over 400 years. During his visit, Prince Charles spent a great deal of time supporting British commercial interests and cultural links, as well as visiting environmental projects which are close to his heart,’ explains Christopher. ‘It was a privilege to spend time with him.’
During his time in the Far East, Christopher was keen to experience different cultures and visit other difficult-to-reach places. ‘In 1999 I jumped at the chance to take a holiday in Mongolia – I had no idea that this was to be the start of a personal and professional relationship with the country which was to continue until the present day,’ he chuckles. ‘My first three-week holiday to Mongolia was a real insight into this wonderful developing nation, which was still recovering from the impact of the end of the Soviet-controlled era. Many of its people were still struggling to cope with the transition and much of the largely nomadic nation was still engaged in traditional agricultural practices – with many of its people working as sheep and cattle herders.’
‘I fell in love with the vast open spaces of the landscape. It was common to see people wearing traditional costumes in their everyday lives, with many still riding horses through the streets of the towns,’ he says. Although Mongolia is over five times the size of the UK only three million people live there, with most living in the capital Ulaanbaatar.
Ten years after Christopher’s first holiday there was an opportunity to apply for the role of British Ambassador to Mongolia. ‘I had just completed a three-year secondment to The Energy Technologies Institute, where I was Director responsible for corporate and government affairs, helping to find new and improved ways to reduce releases of environmentally damaging CO2 from our industrial and business processes and every-day lives. The organisation was part private and part public sector-led and I loved the time I spent there.’
After a series of interviews in Whitehall and a six-month application process Christopher was confirmed as the new British Ambassador to Mongolia by the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague. ‘The application process to become an ambassador is a long and complex one but very rewarding,’ he says.
A press and media statement issued by the Foreign Office in April 2012 noted Christopher’s reaction to his appointment: ‘I am delighted and honoured to have been appointed Ambassador to Mongolia. This is an exciting and promising moment in the history of this beautiful country. We have a close and enduring friendship with Mongolia and it will be a privilege to lead the Embassy team in Ulaanbaatar in further developing and strengthening the links between the two countries.’
It had been 12 years since Christopher had first visited Mongolia on holiday and when he returned to the country he was amazed by the significant changes that had taken place. ‘I had sold Mongolia to Isabelle as a nation of large open spaces, free from congestion and cars with people still riding horses down the streets. However, when we arrived in Ulaanbaatar we were amazed to see how much the city had changed – with widespread gridlock blocking most of the city’s streets,’ reflects Christopher.
The main reason for the explosion of cars and congestion was the discovery of vast mineral resources and the arrival of overseas companies keen to access these lucrative natural assets.
‘The role of a British ambassador varies from country to country. Priorities also vary from nation to nation and are linked to the issues pertaining within the country where a mission is located,’ explains Christopher. ‘In Mongolia there was a unique opportunity to promote British industry, particularly mining and manufacturing. For example, I worked closely with a British company located in Worksop that produces rail clips to access these new and emerging markets – all helping to support the Mongolian desire to build infrastructure to support the growing mineral extraction process.’
Life in the British Embassy in Mongolia could also be very challenging and exciting. ‘We were very fortunate to enjoy high profile British political visits – including one by William Hague who was keen to see how the embassy was operating. William was a very impressive foreign secretary who was delighted to see how British industry was being supported by our mission and what impact it was having.’
Mongolia is an emerging nation with many of its democratic processes still in their infancy, which presented a number of challenges as well as opportunities for Christopher and his team. ‘The Mongolian people are eager to improve how they do things; we were able to offer insights and to help them develop paths to grow and prosper. It was a very exciting time to be at the heart of this process,’ Christopher remarks.
‘Mongolia is a very special place – we were keen to encourage our son William to visit the nation and discover its many wonderful attributes. On one occasion we took him on a visit to the Gobi Desert in the south of the country – which has sand dunes over 300 metres high covering a distance of some 14 kilometres in length – truly breathtaking! It is also one of the best places in the world for people who are interested in bird-watching.’
Day-to-day living in Mongolia also presented many new challenges for the Stuart family – especially when it came to food. ‘The Mongolian diet is based around meat, more meat and then more meat again! Fat is regarded as a delicacy and sheep are bred to produce 100 per cent fat on their hindquarters. I’ve been to many a reception where a full sheep’s head was presented to the visiting guest as a welcome!’ laughs Christopher. ‘You have to remember that as an ambassador you have a duty to embrace the nation you are visiting – and it is important you sample the culture and try to fit in.’
Isabelle was also keen to help British businesses tap into the growing desire in Mongolia for British goods and services. Since Christopher left the diplomatic service in April 2015, Isabelle has been invited by a number of British companies to introduce their goods and wares to the nation. ‘Isabelle has made a small business around this work – she is now the agent for Denby Pottery in Mongolia and recently helped to bring the first container load of Denby cups, saucers, dishes and plates into the country,’ says Christopher.
Since leaving the Foreign Office Christopher has continued to promote British trade exchanges with the countries where he has worked. ‘I am currently working with the Japan Society to help UK-based Japanese businesses to strengthen and develop cultural, educational and business links with the UK and I have recently accepted a non-executive director role with a Cambridge University / BP spin out company working in risk analysis for global governments and companies operating in resource-stressed regions of the globe,’ he explains. It is evident that Christopher’s inspiring journey from the classrooms of Derbyshire to the highest diplomatic circles has many more roads still to travel.
The role of the British Ambassador in Mongolia
• The Ambassador is a diplomat of the highest rank – they formally represent their nation with full plenipotentiary powers (ie full authority to act of their Government);
• The full official title is Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Mongolia;
• In 1963 Britain became the first western country to establish diplomatic relations with Mongolia;
• The Ambassador actively promotes British policies, values and investment opportunities for both British and Mongolian companies in the UK and Mongolia respectively;
• This is done by working with the Mongolian Government and private sector contacts; and
• The Ambassador reports to the British Government on political developments in Mongolia.